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Wilderness watchers wonder what's next for Montana wild country

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Wilderness study areas

Wilderness study areas like the headwaters of the Dearborn River could win federal designation in a pending Montana public lands package, but other WSAs in eastern Montana could be downgraded.

While everyone wonders if the U.S. Senate will pass a huge package of public lands legislation this week, many Montanans are already looking beyond the fate of the two wildland protection bills in the mix.

“The positive thing is a logjam is going to break loose,” said Scott Bosse of American Rivers in Bozeman. “That helps future conservation bills. I think members of our delegation were reluctant to take on other big projects as long as the logjam existed.”

Wilderness advocate Steward Brandborg felt quite the opposite. The man who helped pass the Wilderness Act of 1964 called last week’s omnibus addition to the National Defense Authorization Act “a lamentable drift.”

“It doesn’t represent anything beyond a bad precedent for managing our public lands,” Brandborg said. “It’s a totally inadequate, half-assed approach that we shouldn’t allow.”

Brandborg was also angry about the deal Republican Rep. Steve Daines cut with Democratic senators Jon Tester and John Walsh to downgrade 29,000 acres of eastern Montana wilderness study areas in return for supporting the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which adds 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

“People worked hard to get consideration of those for placement in the wilderness system,” Brandborg said. “It is unconscionable to take those out for private use. To go back now and deny that permanent protection, or possibility of gaining that, is a tragic mistake.”

All three members of the congressional delegation said the 14,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management WSA at Zook Creek and Buffalo Creek near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation had been downgraded in the 1980s as not worthy of wilderness designation. But the last-minute, no public review nature of the deal still rankled.

“It’s disappointing to have those two WSAs be released,” said Peter Aengst, Northern Rockies regional director of the Wilderness Society. “But when I look at what’s happening with this package, it’s a huge conservation win for Montana. Nationwide, Montana has more wilderness acres of protection than any other state by far.”

In addition to the Bob Marshall wilderness additions, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act gave 208,000 acres conservation management status, which allows existing travel and recreation uses but prevents other development.

And the North Fork Preservation Act took 400,000 acres along the North Fork of the Flathead River out of energy development. That dovetails with British Columbia legislation giving the northern part of the river similar protection.

In comparison, Aengst said Nevada got one 20,000-acre wilderness area and one 40,000-acre recreation area, while Colorado got 30,000 acres of new wilderness and 70,000 acres of national recreation area.

Montana’s trade-aways opened 112 million tons of coal tracts to the Signal Peak mining operation out of Roundup, while reassessing oil and gas potential on 15,000 acres south of the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

Daines said that kind of balance between land protection and resource opportunity was essential in bringing the deal together. It also marked a nearly unprecedented release of wilderness study areas that had been hanging in limbo for almost 40 years.


Choteau lawyer Stoney Burk spent years fighting to keep the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act alive. When original author Max Baucus retired and appointed replacement Walsh dropped out of the race to fill the seat, Burk feared the air might have gone out of the balloon.

“We were disappointed to have Max withdraw that momentum we gained,” Burk said. “So to hear it had been introduced as part of the total bill was a happy surprise. We were looking at three or four years maybe to get back on track.”

And there’s plenty of other work to get on to. Dave Hadden at Headwaters Montana was a long-time push for the North Fork Protection Act. With that near completion, he can move on to the recently wrapped-up Whitefish Range Partnership’s report to the Flathead National Forest.

“That has an 83,000-acre recommended wilderness, and might resolve the questions of wilderness character and snowmobile use in the Ten Lakes area,” Brennan said. “We look forward to doing some legislation in the next four or five years.”

And don’t think the political movement has gone unnoticed elsewhere.

Montana and British Columbia finished a memorandum of understanding to protect the transboundary Flathead in 2010. The British Columbia Parliament enacted legislation protecting the area in 2011, and private U.S. groups joined the B.C. government in paying more than $10 million to buy out existing energy and mineral rights on the Canadian side.

“Some folks were going – Are the Americans just telling us what to do or doing something themselves?” said John Bergenske of Wildsight, a British Columbia advocacy group working on the Flathead. “The fact things hadn’t taken place for so long left a lot of eyebrows raised. This really demonstrates clearly the good faith to work across the boundary to protect the values in the Flathead.”

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